Four Downs: NFC West

Four Downs: NFC West
Four Downs: NFC West
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Danny Tuccitto

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest hole: Quarterback

No matter how you slice it, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer were just plain awful. According to standard NFL statistics, Arizona's pass offense ranked 28th in yardage, 29th in completion percentage, 31st in touchdowns, 32nd in interceptions, and 32nd in sacks allowed. In passing DVOA, they ranked 31st (Kolb), 37th (Skelton), and 39th (Lindley) out of 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 passes.

Kolb, Skelton, and Lindley comprised the first trio of signal-calling teammates since 2004 -- and only the sixth since 1991 -- to each finish in the bottom 11 according to Football Outsiders' DYAR measure of total player value (explained here).

It's quite illustrious company for the 2012 Cardinals to have joined: Not one, but two Billy Joes; a Bucky; a Collins not named Kerry or Phil; arguably the biggest draft bust in NFL history; a Super Bowl-winning punter; and a strong-armed prospect for the Cardinals of professional baseball.

Team Year QBs (DYAR Ranks)
Phoenix Cardinals 1991 Stan Gelbaugh (29th), Chris Chandler (34th), Tom Tupa (38th)
Houston Oilers 1994 Bucky Richardson (41st), Billy Joe Tolliver (43rd), Cody Carlson (44th)
Buffalo Bills 1997 Billy Joe Hobert (38th), Alex Van Pelt (42nd), Todd Collins (45th)
Dallas Cowboys 2001 Quincy Carter (29th), Anthony Wright (34th), Ryan Leaf (37th)
Chicago Bears 2004 Jonathan Quinn (37th), Chad Hutchinson (38th), Craig Krenzel (42nd)
Arizona Cardinals 2012 Kevin Kolb (29th), John Skelton (35th), Ryan Lindley (38th)

As "Tom Tupa was our opening-day starter in 1991" suggests, this franchise has been trying to plug a hole at quarterback for over two decades. And after 2012, none of the players currently in the fold are that plug. If you're inclined to give Kolb a "get out of jail free" card because he was injured, we remind you that he finished 2011 ranked 28th out of 34 quarterbacks in total QBR. Similarly, if you're inclined to do the same for Skelton because he was "a winner" in 2011, we remind you that he had 35.1 Total QBR that season, basically the same as Kolb's 34.4.

So that's the disease; what can they do to treat it this offseason? The answer seems to be "not much." The group of free-agent quarterbacks is almost as underwhelming as the names in the table above. Alex Smith and Matt Flynn can be had for the right price, but Arizona will have to pay a hefty premium considering that Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll would rather have Sunday morning breakfast together than improve the roster of a division rival.

There's not much promise in the draft either, where the scouting consensus says this is a below-average quarterback class and Mel Kiper, Jr., doesn't even have one being selected in the first round of his latest mock draft. The only quarterback projected to go in the first round is West Virginia's Geno Smith, but neither Kiper, Jr. nor Todd McShay think he's a good fit for new head coach Bruce Arians' offense, while other sites have him coming off the board before Arizona is on the clock.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest hole: Defensive Depth

I wrote the following in our Plugging the Holes series from last May: "The only real limitation of San Francisco's roster at the moment is a stunning lack of experience on its defensive bench, mostly at defensive line and in the secondary. I say 'stunning' because ... the 49ers' defense was the second-healthiest in the league [in 2011]." In 2012, that same combination of lack of depth with excellent health clearly showed up in participation rates, as nine players were on the field for 90 percent or more of San Francisco's defensive snaps, and a 10th, Justin Smith, would have been as well if not for missing the final two games of the regular season. For all intents and purposes, this has been a 12-man unit on game day during the Jim Harbaugh era.

It's no surprise, then, that the 49ers defense took a statistical nose dive in the second half of the season, especially after Justin Smith (and Aldon Smith) got hurt. (It got less press, but Aldon Smith was dealing with a shoulder injury in practices during the playoffs.) Given that San Francisco had the 10th-oldest defense in the NFL according to our new snap-weighted age metric (27.3 years old), it's fair to say that this unit was tired and beaten down. The only defenders outside of their 12-man rotation that you've even (maybe) heard of are dime cornerback Perrish Cox, backup inside linebacker Larry Grant, and Justin Smith's injury replacement Ricky Jean-Francois.

So what should they do about it? First things first, they need to either re-sign free safety Dashon Goldson or use the franchise tag on him for the second straight year. They also need to re-sign either nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga or Jean-Francois, who has filled in for Sopoaga in the past. Then, they need to find a way to get 2011 sixth-round safety Trent Robinson on the field more often -- as in more than the zero defensive snaps he played in 2012. Otherwise, as San Francisco is set on offense and has assimilated Pittsburgh's penchant for penny pinching in free agency under general manager Trent Baalke, the team needs to spend the entirety of draft weekend selecting defenders. It's a good thing that they have 14 picks, and that this is a deep draft on the defensive side of the ball.

Seattle Seahawks

Biggest hole: Defensive Line

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Seattle's defense was essentially the opposite of San Francisco's: the second-youngest according to snap-weighted age, with 16 players seeing the field for 20 percent or more of the team's defensive snaps. Therefore, depth isn't as much of a concern for the Seahawks. Like San Francisco, however, an already-elite defense (fourth in defensive DVOA) on an already-elite team (our No. 1 overall during the regular season) needs some tweaking along the front four.

The elephant in the room is the torn ACL that defensive end Chris Clemons suffered in Seattle's Wild Card round victory over Washington. Unless his offseason rehab includes a laying on of hands from Adrian Peterson, it's not likely that the 32-year old Clemons will be as productive in 2013 as he has been since joining the Seahawks in 2010 (33.5 sacks and 75 quarterback hurries). Luckily, 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin, who registered eight sacks (most among rookies) and 18 hurries despite playing only 43 percent of snaps last season, is poised to pick up Clemons' pass-rushing slack.

However, more playing time for Irvin vis-à-vis Clemons will likely hurt Seattle's run defense, which was already a weaker link (12th in DVOA) than their pass defense (third). Whereas Clemons had a 71 percent stop rate (explained here) on running plays in 2012, which was behind only Brandon Mebane (80 percent) along Seattle's defensive line, only two of Irvin's seven run tackles resulted in stops. Yes that's a tiny sample size, but it's worth mentioning that Irvin's reputation as a one-dimensional player wasn't helped at all by the 162-yard, Divisional Round eruption from Atlanta's run offense, which had ranked 29th in DVOA going into the game.

Complicating matters even further for the Seahawks' run defense is that starting tackle Alan Branch is an unrestricted free agent, backup Clinton McDonald is a restricted free agent, and early-down end Red Bryant's late-season foot issue was recently revealed to be a torn plantar fascia. 2012 fourth-rounder Jaye Howard only played 22 defensive snaps all season.

Although they had the youngest secondary (24.9 years old) and second-youngest linebackers (24.7) according to snap-weighted age, the Seahawks front four was 14th-oldest (27.0), with their starters ranging from 27 to 31 years of age last year. Given the injuries, potential free agent losses, and a draft that's deepest at defensive tackle, it might be the perfect time for Seattle to get better and younger up front. Most mocks have them taking a defensive tackle with the 25th pick; nearly all predict a defensive lineman of some sort. But why stop there?

St. Louis Rams

Biggest holes: Right Tackle, Safety

Only one year removed from 2-14, it's remarkable that the Rams roster doesn't have more holes. On the surface, it appears that free agency may decimate their offense due to the potential loss of Steven Jackson, but 2012 seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson would have ranked 16th in running back DVOA if he had the two additional carries needed to qualify. Talented second-rounder Isaiah Pead played only 39 offensive snaps last season and should contribute much more in 2013. At wide receiver, rookie Chris Givens finished a respectable 47th in DYAR, while free agent Brandon Gibson -- as good as gone -- has had his role as the team's big, possession receiver in jeopardy since the moment St. Louis drafted 6-foot-4 Brian Quick last April. And if the team doesn't re-sign injury-prone slot receiver Danny Amendola, the draft features three consensus first-round wide receievers, and the free-agent market offers several additional options, including fellow Wes-Welker clone Julian Edelman.

Instead, the biggest offensive issue St. Louis needs to address is at right tackle, where Barry Richardson had another awful year in pass protection (18 blown-block sacks or hurries allowed), and backup Wayne Hunter struggled mightily as an injury replacement for left tackle Rodger Saffold (eight blown-block sacks or hurries allowed in one-third season's worth of snaps). It should also be noted that, in the running game, St. Louis' least productive run direction was behind right tackle. As of right now, premier right tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Andre Smith are available if the Rams want to throw money at the problem. Otherwise, it's likely that Oklahoma's Lane Johnson will be available at their No. 16 pick.

On defense, St. Louis went from the 32nd-ranked DVOA in 2010 to 21st in 2011 to seventh 2012. With Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan set to hit the market as unrestricted free agents, strongside linebacker might be a concern. Of course, it's not like either of those guys is Von Miller. No, the biggest impending hole on defense is at safety, where it's likely that both 2012 starters (Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl) won't be re-signed, and backup Darian Stewart went from "strong safety of the future" to "Gatorade watchman" in the course of one calendar year. Again, the Rams could benefit from a deep pool of second-tier free agents (e.g., Yeremiah Bell and Louis Delmas), while their No. 22 pick lines up nicely with where the two consensus first-round safeties, Texas' Kenny Vaccaro and Florida's Matt Elam, are projected to go off the board.

(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)


21 comments, Last at 13 Mar 2013, 2:39pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 21, 2013 - 2:18pm

Of that list, Chris Chandler eventually became a pretty good QB. That's a good omen for Skelton, I suppose. Kolb better hope his leg is strong.

Points: 0

#2 by JasonK // Feb 21, 2013 - 4:22pm

Technically, the 49ers have 11 draft picks. The "14 picks" line has been bandied about a lot, but that includes fan projections of Compensatory picks that are to be announced later in the offseason.

Points: 0

#3 by Sifter // Feb 21, 2013 - 4:32pm

ARZ: The fact that every QB sucks in Arizona certainly tells a story about the QB talent, but for me it says more about the absolutely awful O-line they have. Put me in the 'Kolb could be OK, so maybe just get a better backup QB so we never have to see Skelton or Lindley again...but DEFINITELY get 3 new linemen from somewhere' club. If I'm running Cards, I'd try to get Matt Moore, promise him a shot at the starting job in training camp. Reaching for a guy in the 1st round would be a bad idea.

SF: Trent Robinson Danny? Why does a 6th round pick need to get on the field more? No sarcasm, just wondering 'tis all. Do Niners even have the cap room to get Goldson back? Safety (if Goldson leaves) and nose tackle seem the only real holes. The other potential issues like replacing Justin Smith and Carlos Rogers can wait a little bit longer.

SEA: D-line looks a fair call. Mebane seems the only reliable guy at present. Red Bryant was pretty poor last year when I saw him, but deserves a chance to rebound. Irvin should grow in time, or at the very least deserves the chance to. If they can get Alan Branch or even Jason Jones back it will help. Shoutout to O-line though. They need to light a fire under James Carpenter, get a better guard than Paul McQuistan/JR Sweezey and probably look to upgrade Giacomini at RT as well.

STL: O-line and safety seems right to me. Would be good if they could get Mikell back though, give them a pretty good bandaid - for a drafted guy perhaps? Don't have much cap room, but Amendola might be worth a look again, as he's very productive when healthy and Bradford needs that reliable outlet.

Points: 0

#6 by DEW (not verified) // Feb 21, 2013 - 6:30pm

Agree there on Arizona; the QB situation *is* bad, but as bad as it is there's not a lot of potential improvement there, so keeping Kolb and Hoyer and maybe taking a midround flyer on a guy that might have some of that legendary "upside" would be a good play. But the OL has got to be fixed for them to have any offense at all, and they'd be better spent shoring it up so that when they do get the chance to draft or sign a QB, they can keep him vertical. Plus, the running game stank in 2012 too, so actual blocking might help with that somewhat.

Points: 0

#8 by Danny Tuccitto // Feb 21, 2013 - 8:16pm

For the simple fact that these guys (i.e., the 10 starters who play 90 percent of snaps every game) need to start getting breathers so that they don't have a second-half performance dip next year like they did this year. They're basically the only defense in the league that has no rotation at any position. It's 10 + Sopoaga on running downs, and 10 + Culliver on passing downs. I just think that's an unsustainable usage pattern, and the only reason it works is because they've had the healthiest D in the league the past two years -- which is why I identified this is a hole last May. Wish I didn't end up being so prophetic.

Points: 0

#9 by Danny Tuccitto // Feb 21, 2013 - 9:36pm

For Arizona, OL was definitely a consideration when putting this together. The reason why I didn't go that route is because a) Levi Brown is their left tackle for 2013, not D'Anthony Batiste, b) Bobby Massie was a rookie and OLs tend to not show their true value until Year 2 (indeed, he improved as the year went on), c) it's hard to evaluate the interior linemen when the tackles were so freaking horrible (not to mention Lyle Sendelein got hurt as well).

Also, as I said in the piece, Kolb wasn't even OK in 2011. What I didn't say in the piece is that a) I think him doing well in PHI's WCO, but sucking in Whisenhunt's more "tailor it to your personnel" type of offense (of note: Arians has the same approach) is telling; and b) he'll get no preferential treatment from a regime that didn't bring him into town.

Just my opinion, of course.

Points: 0

#4 by Dean // Feb 21, 2013 - 5:05pm

The Rams may throw money at a free agent OL, but they will not draft an OL in the first round. In fact, if you look at the first TWO rounds, a Jeff Fisher coached team has used exactly ONE draft choice on the Offensive Line - Michael Roos in the 2nd a decade ago.

Andy Reid has drafted more linebackers in less time in the first two rounds than Jeff Fisher does offensive linemen.

Points: 0

#5 by RamsFan (not verified) // Feb 21, 2013 - 5:08pm

Wounded homer alert here, but I have to nit-pick your Rams section-
You say their defense went from 32nd ranked in DVOA in 2011 to 21st in 2012, but that's their offense's rankings.

On defense, they finished this year ranked 7th in DVOA. As in, 6 away from being #1. That's like, actually pretty good. I know, I had to recheck it a couple times too.

That stat gets me a little excited, until you realize that the other teams in the NFC West are ranked #2, 4, and 6 in DVOA Defense. Behold, the toughest division in the league in the eyes of your offense.

Points: 0

#7 by Danny Tuccitto // Feb 21, 2013 - 8:08pm

Oops. That was supposed to be 32nd in 2010 to 21st in 2011 to seventh in 2012. Fixed.

Points: 0

#14 by RamsFan (not verified) // Feb 22, 2013 - 9:56am

Great, thanks! Love this site.

Points: 0

#10 by 49ers fan #8 or #9 (not verified) // Feb 22, 2013 - 4:02am

"It's a good thing that they have 14 picks, and that this is a deep draft on the defensive side of the ball."
Meh-How are the 49ers, probably the most talented team in the league, going to have room for 14 rookies (between 11-13 really) on the team? Their top picks last season barely got on the field this past season.
They should trade ~1/2 of the picks. Hopefully they trade up to the top half of the first round and pick up a blue chip talent at DL or in the secondary.

Points: 0

#12 by DisplacedPackerFan // Feb 22, 2013 - 7:41am

The Patriots and Packers routinely carry 9-13 rookies on their opening day rosters over the last decade or so. They are two of most consistently successful teams over that span. I'm not saying San Fran has to do something like that, but to think they can't or that it wouldn't be helpful isn't absurd. Trading up to try and get better talent isn't a bad idea either (Packers did that with Matthews, Hayward, and a few others recently and they will likely keep doing it now that Ted has the talent base he wants). The other reason is that younger is cheaper now with the new rookie wage scale. The salary cap makes teams make decision they might otherwise not have to make all the time.

Points: 0

#13 by Jimmy // Feb 22, 2013 - 8:35am

For the majority of picks the new wage scale makes no difference. It only affects top ten picks, maybe top fifteen.

Points: 0

#16 by Danny Tuccitto // Feb 22, 2013 - 3:55pm

Well, yeah, they're no doubt going to package those picks with the end result being fewer than 14 actual selections this year. As far as where they're going to find the roster space for 10 or so rookies, I think you seem to be making a few faulty assumptions here:

1) There's the 8-man practice squad to stash guys.
2) There's the 8 gameday inactives, which is where rookies like James and Jenkins were stashed for the majority of 2012. I'd venture to guess those two will be active every week in 2013 barring season-ending injuries. More spots.
3) They have 13 unrestricted free agents and 3 restricted free agents. Probably half of those guys won't be re-signed. More spots.
4) Related to #3, SF doesn't sign many free agents from other teams, so it's not like they'll be bringing in a bunch of high-priced vets to crowd out the rookies. More spots.
5) They have a handful of guys who aren't even free agents, but could easily be cap casualties. More spots.

Points: 0

#18 by Noahrk // Feb 23, 2013 - 3:12pm

I think the point about the 11-13 draft picks is that the 49ers officially have 11 draft picks as of right now. Whether they end up with 14 or fewer is purely speculation at this point.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

Points: 0

#20 by bravehoptoad // Feb 26, 2013 - 10:34am

I not convinced they're the most talented team in the league. I do think it helps the name recognition of their defense mightily that only 12 people ever see the field for them, and in the minds of most people, name recognition = talent.

Points: 0

#11 by Tim R // Feb 22, 2013 - 6:09am

The Rams definitely need to uprgade tackle and safety. A guard and a strong side lb wouldn't go amiss either.

I hope they keep hold of Amendola despite the injuries because Bradford looks so much more comfortable when he's playing and they could still really do with a legitamate number one receiver. Though they probably don't have the cap room to sign either Bowe or Wallace.

Points: 0

#15 by Cro-Mags // Feb 22, 2013 - 11:03am

I have a hard time remembering if Tom Tupa was a punter that got pressed into playing QB, or a QB that fell back on punting. Or both. Or wait... I mean, he played QB kind of like you'd expect a punter would. You'd kind of admire a punter who'd step up to the plate and lead his team if called upon, but for a QB to be relegated to a punting is kind of slumming it, no?

Points: 0

#17 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 22, 2013 - 5:53pm

Both. He was Ohio State's starting punter for four years and starting QB for one year -- which pretty much matches his NFL experience.

There's a reason he won an NFL punt-pass-kick competition.

Points: 0

#19 by LionInAZ // Feb 24, 2013 - 7:48pm

Which raises the interesting question: how many PPK winners have actually become professional football players.

Points: 0

#21 by HogInExile (not verified) // Mar 13, 2013 - 2:39pm

Which of those deplorable former QBs mentioned in the Cardinals section was the baseball player? Not especially important, but it's gonna bug me until I know. I checked on every one of the QBs not specifically alluded to, and I didn't see any baseball players among them.

Points: 0

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